LAYTON — Being diagnosed with cancer is traumatic at any age, but can be particularly difficult for adolescents and young adults who are finishing school, choosing a career, or starting a family.
One Layton woman has found support through a special program.
For Nayeli Gomez, painting is her way favorite to relieve stress.
"You can make a mistake and find out that it actually looks better," she explained. "Sometimes they're not great paintings, but they make me happy!"
Unfortunately, she's experienced a lot of additional stress during the pandemic from the challenging experience she finds herself in.
"Well, I found a lump myself in my chest up here," she said. "I'm 34. I have no history of family cancer… my thought was, 'My mom can't bury her only daughter.'"
On May 21, 2020, Gomez was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer and now she faces fears she never anticipated like her ability to have children following chemo.
"I don't have kids yet. I feel like I haven't really started my life," she explained. "I was faced with a decision that I had to make way too quickly. Do I freeze my eggs? And I couldn't. I couldn't afford it… It's a scary thought. I've always wanted to be a mom."
Gomez also has a dream to go back to school to become a physician assistant. "But I don't know now if I can do that, because chemo brain is a very real issue," she said.
Gomez said she also lost her job when she was undergoing treatment. She found a new job, but now is only able to work part-time to accommodate her treatment schedule and because a lot of the time, she doesn't feel well.
Dr. David Gill, an oncologist with Intermountain Healthcare, said cancer can disrupt big milestones and create professional challenges.
"You may have to take a year off college, or you may have to take Friday's off work to get your chemotherapy infusion, [or] maybe you get passed up for a raise and wonder, 'Is it in part due to my treatment?'" he described.
Gill says patients ages 15-39 are the most underserved cancer population often with little financial support. "So whether that's uninsured or under insured patient status," he explained.
Through the Huntsman Intermountain Adolescent and Young Adult Cancer Program, or HIAYA, Gomez has found help.
"When I was in unemployment, they put me in contact with people who could answer my questions about, 'What am I filing? Where do I go?'" Gomez said.
She's also connected with others through the Facebook support group who've sympathized with Gomez when she's experienced severe pain or needed advice on how to treat a chemo burn.
"It's really nice to have someone else who's going through the same thing and being able to both get help and know that your horrible experience can help someone else," she said.
Gomez has also been grateful for the professional help she's received from patient navigators who are trained in cancer care, fertility preservative, and family building.
"But being able to call her or text her and just say, 'I'm hurting,'" Gomez said. "It's been wonderful."
Gill said through a combination of contributions from charitable foundations who are willing to assist with the financial costs of fertility preservation and insurance coverage, HIAYA helps patients plan their future. "Some of the treatments we give, including chemotherapies can cause infertility so fertility counseling is extremely important," he said. "Building a family is an important part of many of our patients' lives."
He said going through this experience at such a young age can be isolating. "Your friends and those around you aren't having the same challenges," Gill said. "Anxiety and depression really is the norm after you've been through something like this, so providing those resources is incredibly important."
Though Gomez feels as though she's benefited from the support group more than contributed, Gill says otherwise. "It's been amazing to watch her," he said. "She's helped a lot of other people as they go through their cancer journeys. She's very selfless."
Right now, the group meets together through virtual social events, but when it's safe to gather again, Gill said they plan to get together again for in person social events like escape rooms, axe throwing or Top Golf.
Gomez reminds other cancer patients that there is hope. She said her last scan was clear, though she greatly anticipates the day when her doctor tells her she is completely cancer free. Gomez is so grateful to her boyfriend and her family who have also offered their unconditional support.
She urges others to put their needs first and reach out for help.
"It is the most important thing to advocate for yourself," Gomez said.
The HIAYA program is free and available to cancer patients ages 15 to 39 no matter who their healthcare provider is. To support Gomez on her cancer journey, visit her GoFundMe page*.
*KSL.com does not assure that the money deposited to the account will be applied for the benefit of the persons named as beneficiaries. If you are considering a deposit to the account, you should consult your own advisers and otherwise proceed at your own risk.